BASS HARBOR, Nov. 13, 2020 – Lobstermen are nothing if not resourceful. It’s always been an industry that knows how to take a punch.
So when the pandemic swooped in like a dark, foreboding thundercloud, shutting restaurants that make up a big sector of sales, the industry thought it was facing a collapse. “There will be lobstermen going out of business, that’s for sure,” Jim Dow, a sixth-generation fisherman, told me on the dock next to the harbormaster office here in the spring.
This was after the industry withstood the shock of the tariff war which imposed a tax of up to 40 percent on the fishing stock in 2019. The industry juked and jived its way to create domestic markets to replace the lost China market and even though the 2019 lobster catch was only 100,725,000 pounds, down more than 20 million pounds from the previous year, prices remained high and the value of the catch to fishermen totaled more than $485 million — nearly the same as the year before.
The Maine fisheries department doesn’t report the annual catch until the following March, but the industry is breathing a sigh of relief from early reports so far. Both the Cranberry Isle lobster co-op and the bigger Stonington co-op said anecdotal evidence showed that this year’s catch is down about 17 percent, not nearly the disaster they feared. Meanwhile, prices have firmed up and the value of the catch is running only 7 to 8 percent down.
Prices have steadily increased this year, and current boat prices are exceeding $6 per pound for hard shell. During the summer it dipped below $4.
Marc Nighman, general manager of the Cranberry Island Co-op, said fisherman, in the face of the pandemic and continued rise in bait price, began to fish more strategically, leaving traps underwater for longer periods to ensure a bigger haul on less fuel. Fisherman who were willing to venture farther out to sea also benefitted.
About mid year the industry picked up an important signal from the market. Consumers reluctant to go into restaurants began to buy lobsters directly and cook them at home. The industry responded, shifting inventory from wholesale to retail, creating more online sales, and ensuring that processed lobster products would be abundant in stores.
As a result, retail sales this year are up 30 to 35 percent, said Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “The products were always there, but we had to make sure the grocers were well stocked,” she said.
Maine lobstermen have caught 100 millions pounds or more nine years running. Whether they will keep that record going is unknown, but for a year which was headed toward the abyss, 2020 hasn’t been too bad, said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“Especially early in the season when nothing was open, no restaurants were open. We were thinking it would be a complete disaster,” Porter told the Associated Press. “If it stays like this, we can struggle through and have a season, and then get ready to fish next year.”
And then there was the Election Year gift from the federal government – a rare subsidy for fishermen hurt by the tariff war in 2019 paid for by taxpayers. Lobstermen would get 50 cents for every pound sold in 2019 up to a maximum of $250,000 per business entity. But the subsidy was uneven and left the wholesalers high and dry.
The Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association was among those disappointed that the funds were only available for lobster fishermen, not supply chain businesses that lost out due to the decline in exports.
“It is the lobster supply chain businesses who have been forced to eat the cost of the retaliatory tariffs, not the fishing sector, which saw record high ex-vessel prices paid per pound in 2019,” said Annie Tselikis, the association’s executive director, in a statement.
Thus the year of the pandemic may actually turn out to be a banner year for lobster fishermen if not for the rest of the industry.